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Painful Memories Leave Many Residents Suspicious Of English Lessons

By Ray Quintanilla

May 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Ricans are Americans. And they have been since shortly after the United States took control of this Caribbean island at the turn of the 20th century.

But last week we learned some Puerto Ricans come to the U.S. mainland with a poor command of English, making it difficult for them to thrive. Schools on the island are partly to blame, because English is taught in every public school, though it's not always a priority.

One can cite a dozen reasons why that's the case.

But to understand why something seemingly so straightforward -- like teaching English -- is looked upon with suspicion here, one has to open the history books and examine the U.S. influence on Puerto Rico during the first half of the 20th century.

Here are some things you may not know that served to create hard feelings that are still around today:

*U.S.-appointed governors required schoolchildren to be instructed exclusively in English, turning away from a language spoken on the island for about 400 years. Those who didn't want to learn were spanked to encourage them along.

*Children in those days often struggled with English, because their Puerto Rican teachers -- most of whom didn't speak English either -- were the ones doing the instruction.

*Discrimination, as noted by author Ronald Fernandez in his book Cruising the Caribbean: U.S. Influence and Intervention in the 20th Century, forced Puerto Ricans to accept the fact that, even though many were learning English, they still were regarded as second-class citizens in their own homeland. Command of English, he notes, was no guarantee any American transplant on the island would speak with them.

*Though the island's Legislature approved a bill stating Spanish would be the preferred language of instruction on the island, President Harry S. Truman shot the effort down.

*Finally, residents were told the U.S.-appointed governor had decided to change the island's name to "Porto Rico." So until the 1930s, residents were forced to misspell the name of their own homeland.

As much as anything, Luis Muñoz Marín continues to be held in high regard because when he became the island's first elected governor in 1948, he changed the island's language-policy instruction, ordering that Spanish be the medium of instruction again.

Yet despite this boost to the island's sense of pride and identity in those years, there is growing concern about the quality of instruction that Puerto Rican children are receiving.

In the year 2004, public-school children here are simply not getting the quality education they deserve, whether it is in English, Spanish or any other language. Pick up the local papers here and you'll see the hot topic among educators these days is whether the island's education secretary goofed and had to return about $40 million in federal education funds earmarked for Puerto Rico's poor.

Most people recognize the island's dropout rate rivals that of the most troubled systems in the United States.

The radio airwaves are full of frustrated parents upset with the quality of teachers and instruction their children receive here.

For me, the questions posed here are very personal. My own children are going to be facing some of these tensions once they arrive on the island from the U.S. mainland.

Whether they enter the public system or a private school remains a question. But what isn't so murky is that the history of battling over language on the island will confront them very soon.

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